If you are interested in acting as your own attorney or want to learn more about your legal rights, the best place to visit is your local county law library. It's open to the public.
The first visit to a law library can be intimidating. It is filled with lawyers and law students, all of whom seem to know exactly where to find the answers to their legal questions.
You won't know where to look first. There are thousands of different types of treatises, journals, legal encyclopedias and casebooks, each with its own complicated, annotated indexing systems.
Trying to Understand
Come to the law library prepared to spend some time exploring the various resources and then even more time trying to understand what you'll read.
But before you go, there are a few other resources you may consult. The Tel-Law service, a free information program sponsored by the Riverside County Bar Assn., has a tape entitled "Use of a California Law Library." Call (714) 824-2300 and ask to listen to tape No. 221. There is no charge for the service, but you will have to pay the phone company for the toll call if it is not a local call for you.
A legal-reform group in Washington, Halt Inc. (the name stands for Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), publishes a set of citizens' legal manuals for its members. One of the manuals is an excellent 61-page text, which explains to the lay person how to use a law library. Only Halt members can receive copies of these manuals, but membership is only $15 per year and that includes a newsletter too.
For further information, write or call Halt, 201 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., Suite 319, Washington, D.C. 20002. Telephone (202) 546-4258.
Two other helpful books are "Legal Research in a Nutshell" and Nolo Press' "Legal Research: How to Find and Understand the Law," sold at many law school bookstores. You can order the Nolo Press book directly from the publisher at 950 Parker St., Berkeley, Calif. 94710.
In the meantime, here are a few other tips to help you prepare for your visit to the law library:
The Marindale-Hubbell Law Directory, which is published in a new edition each year, lists all of the practicing lawyers in the country, state by state. And the last volume of the directory, the Law Digests, contains a summary of the laws of each state. The law changes so rapidly that the directory may be out of date and may not include recent changes passed during the year, but it is a tremendous resource to help you understand a general area of law or start you on your research.
There are other legal encyclopedias, such as "Corpus Juris Secundum" and "American Jurisprudence," that summarize legal concepts. In California, there are two valuable general publications that summarize the law of this state: Bernard Witkin's "Summary of California Law," currently in its eighth edition, and "Cal Jur," in its third edition. In fact, Witkin's treatise is a law bible for most practicing attorneys who first consult Witkin whenever they are presented with a case they've never encountered before.
Each law school publishes its own law review or law journal. These student-edited publications contain articles by lawyers, judges and law professors about trends in the law, new significant decisions and other law-related public-policy issues. The "Index to Legal Periodicals" lists the articles by author and topic.
There are also general treatises about specific categories of law, such as contracts, torts, constitutional law and labor law. These volumes, called "hornbooks" by law students, are usually written by law professors. They summarize and criticize the current state of the law and have extensive footnotes to the actual court decisions on which they are based.
The "law" itself is found in two places: statutes and published appellate decisions. Each state has annotated collections of statutes that contain all of the laws passed by the state legislature. There is also a published U.S. Code of federal statutes.
Finding a State Law
If you are interested in finding a specific state law, as one reader was, you'll want to check one of the California codes. (More than one publisher publishes the full body of state laws.) Be sure to check the pocket supplement at the back of the volume. These contain the most recent amendments, and even they can be a bit out of date.
Directly following the statutes, these annotated codes list citations to the published decisions that interpret them. The abbreviation system may confuse you at first. You won't know what it means when you read "Jones vs. Smith, 128 Cal. App. 3rd 121," but ask a law librarian to help you. You'll find out that the decision is published on Page 121 of Vol. 128 of the third edition of the California Appellate Reporter.
Law librarians can help you find your way through the maze of materials and resources in the library, but it is not their job to give legal advice. They can only show you where the map is; you'll have to read it yourself or hire a lawyer to help you find out how to get to court.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.